Written by Jamie Bakal
Divorce, when there are kids involved, can make the unraveling of everyday life seem like a daunting task. Add in life-changing decisions, like applying to private school, and it can heighten the process, taking on whole new levels of stress and drama. Or perhaps you’re on the other side, in a blended family. So, where do you even begin?
As an educator for the last 20 years, and as an independent school consultant in Los Angeles for almost 15 years, I have literally heard and seen it all. Parents agreeing, not agreeing; kids disagreeing; honesty about strengths; dishonesty about weaknesses; promises to move across town; competing with friends; last-minute slots appearing for the right family; the right fit; the wrong fit (all in the same family and all at the same school!).
Luckily, navigating the process as a divorced or separated parent can be fairly streamlined, if you follow a few simple guidelines. And, spoiler alert, it’s all about putting your kiddos first!
What’s the best way to find the perfect school for your child and for your family? (Yes, it’s about all of you.) The old-fashioned way…taking a look, in person, by signing up for tours and open houses. This process will allow you to actually hear from current students, teachers, and administrators about the educational philosophy and their community credo.
Finding a school that’s the right fit for your child must come above all else. When parents have separate ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ out of a school, one parent’s desires shouldn’t overpower the other’s. A parent’s agenda must come second to the child’s needs, unless of course the parents are on the same page.
A great way to start is for each parent to jot down a few ideas of what he or she is looking for in a school and in what type of environment their child will thrive. Then the parents can exchange their lists to see their commonalities and their differences. This initial exercise is a great way to better understand your ultimate goal for your child and your family, whether you are married or divorced.
I know lots of native Los Angelenos who have initially refused to look at a particular school because they have preconceived notions about that school from opinions made over 20 years ago. I hear things like, “that’s for this or that type of kid” or “it’s the school you choose because can’t get into school X, Y or Z.” It’s actually pretty amusing, because, just like most things, educational institutions evolve over the years, especially with so much current research on best practices. With different administrators, leadership and families, things change over time. It’s very important to take a tour and to see for yourself what resonates most for you and your child. Please do not rely on old rumors or hearsay. Again, keep your child/children in the forefront of your mind, and make him or her your first priority.
Even if you have a preconceived notion of a school, or you simply want to skip it because your ex wants to go, check it out nonetheless and do your best to remain openminded. Just because you tour, it does not mean that you need to apply.
What happens if your ex isn’t available or won’t show up? What do you do? Do not give up! If your ex isn’t available or refuses to attend, go anyway. And as challenging as it may be to attend solo, reject the urge to bring a friend or special friend. Instead, bring a current spouse (step-parent) or a grandparent. Ultimately, it’s better to go alone than with someone who would not be involved in the process and is just there for moral support.
In a perfect world, both parents will tour each school to which you will apply. You do not necessarily need to tour together (many schools have several available options), but it is important that both parents see the school at some point.
If there’s a school with which you are both enamored, attend as many events during the admissions process as possible. Attend a second tour, go to the coffees, school fairs, diversity events, athletic events, etc. Each event will shed greater light on the pedagogy, environment, and community.
Also, parents, whether it be together or separately, should write a thank you note after every tour or open house.
Ultimately, divorced or separated parents do not scare or worry admissions directors. With the current statistic of one in four marriages ending in divorce, schools are very open to different types of families. Furthermore, it supports the notion of inclusivity, which the schools value.
Differences may exist between the two divorced parents, but it’s important to come into all interviews and admissions functions with a unified front, even if it is just for that hour of the day. School administrators want families that are able to put their differences aside for the sake of their child.
It perhaps goes without saying, but admission directors do not want to listen to parents bickering or disagreeing during an interview. They do not want to witness parents contradicting one another, and they do not want to do separate interviews for each of the parents.
They want parents to put on a brave face (fake smile if need be!) in order to support their child’s educational journey. If two people can’t come together for a couple of hours, how’s that going to work for the next 7, 9, or 13 years you’ll be spending together co-parenting at school?
PICKING A SCHOOL
It can often be helpful to let a school know your level of interest when you are going through the process. But what if parents aren’t on the same page? If you truly cannot come to a unanimous decision, do not declare a first choice. Never make hasty decisions, and please don’t make decisions out of spite. And under no circumstance should you declare first choice to more than one school. If you end up declaring your first choice, it should be written on behalf of both parents. Again, make this decision based on the best interest of the child.
SCHOOL DAYS AND BEYOND
Now that you have been accepted to a school(s), what is the best way to approach all of those parent moments like back to school night, parent-teacher conferences, plays, etc.?
As a former first grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I can speak from first-hand experience that teachers are very busy. Most teachers are working tirelessly to ensure that your child is getting the individual attention that he or she needs and is receiving the proper education. To that end, teachers cannot spend extra time and energy trying to accommodate separated or divorced parents who can’t get along.
Just as you did during the admissions process, it’s vital that you put your differences aside in the best interest of your child/children and do the parent-teacher conferences together. After teaching and consulting with all different types of families from around the country and world, one thing remains the same…a positive educational experience is best fostered when both parents, the teacher, and the child are all on the same page.
Here’s the thing to remember: no parent is perfect. Married, single or divorced, we all make plenty of mistakes – that is human. However, if as parents, you can come together, put your differences aside, and focus only on what’s best for your child/children’s education, you will be giving them a gift that lasts a lifetime.
About the Author
Jamie Bakal helps families manage the process of applying to k-12 independent schools by ensuring that she helps finds the best school and education for the individual child. She is also on the Associate’s Board of City Year Los Angeles, which helps to close gaps in high-need schools by supporting students' academic and social-emotional development while also providing schools with the additional capacity to enhance school culture and climate. Jamie lives with her two young daughters and husband in Los Angeles.
Go to this page about online divorce to learn more.